SK Sustainability Committee, ecoRI discuss climate change

Date: February 1, 2021
Author: Ryan Blessing

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A lot of people believe climate change is real and here, but little concrete action to address it has taken place and the clock is ticking, environmental advocates said at a South Kingstown forum.

The panel on climate change, held Jan. 13 via Zoom, was a joint event organized by South Kingstown’s Sustainability Committee and environmental news outlet ecoRI.

“For the better part of a couple of decades I’ve been listening to scientists tell us climate change is real, it’s serious and we should be doing something about it,” said moderator Kevin O’Neill, a Cumberland business owner and member of the Rhode Island chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

O’Neill said roughly 66 to 75 percent of Rhode Islanders believe climate change is real and that it is a serious problem. A little more than half believe it is man-made, he said.

So what can be done?

“Scientists tell us we need to cut our global carbon footprint to net-zero by mid-century, and to get halfway there by 2030,” O’Neill told the group of about 60 attendees.

Part of the discussion focused on ways participants can take action individually and collectively to do something about climate change. They also shared some of their success stories.

“We shouldn’t be waiting for other people to do something about it,” O’Neill said.

It’s also important to frame climate change in terms of solutions rather than the problem, he added.

He said the fixes include using energy more efficiently by transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity, getting energy from sources that don’t dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and restoring the chemical composition of the atmosphere “back to what it was back when George H.W. Bush was president.”

These are huge, structural changes that need to be made, but they will ultimately have a large positive impact on the state and the country, O’Neill said.

Locally, South Kingstown benefits from a supportive, socially- and environmentally-conscious community, Town Manager Rob Zarnetske said.

The town converted the Rose Hill landfill to solar use, he noted, and has supported other solar developments around town.

“The town itself is getting solar energy from the Rose Hill project,” he said.

Modernization efforts, such as installing LED lights and energy efficient windows in town buildings, have reduced consumption.

The town has also moved aggressively toward electric aggregation.

“As a town, as a collective group of citizens, we will be consuming our energy from cleaner sources,” Zarnetske said.

The town’s community aggregation plan is before the Public Utilities Commission awaiting approval. Once that happens, the town will search for a clean energy vendor on the open market.

“We will be trying to maximize the benefit for cleaner energy, while at the same time making sure there’s a price reduction for all electric utility users here in South Kingstown,” he said.

The town has done some electrification of its vehicle fleet.

“We’ve put charging stations at some places in town,” Zarnetske said.

However, he said, cost remains a challenge to electrifying the town’s entire vehicle fleet.

Rudolf Kraus, a science educator at Rhode Island College, gave a high-level overview of climate change and its effects. Kraus said the science of climate change is “playing catch-up” in schools to the Common Core areas of math and reading.

“We know science is difficult and sometimes students are persuaded to give up,” he said. “And we have a statewide shortage of science teachers.”

On the consumer front, solutions and actions to mitigate climate change are gaining ground, said Kai Salem, policy coordinator for Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes green programs, education and advocacy.

“We’re really thrilled to see the way South Kingstown has run with aggregation, which will do awesome things for the town,” she said.

Some of the group’s programs include the option for homeowners to purchase renewable electricity, such as solar and wind, and other energy efficiency options, such as home energy audits.

The Drive Green Program provides an all-electric Chevy Volt at a $16,000 discount in Rhode Island, Salem said.

“We also have a ton of information on how to make it affordable to drive an electric car,” she said.

Salem also manages Shave the Peak, a program that sends users a text message reminding them to reduce their energy usage before sweltering “peak demand” days in the summer. Doing so reduces power spikes and reduces the strain on “the oldest, dirtiest and most expensive” power generators, she said.

The group also does policy work to initiate long-term change, such as supporting a bill in the General Assembly that would implement mandatory carbon emissions targets.

“We want to make sure we have those mandatory, enforceable carbon emissions limits so we can jump-start climate action,” she said.

There’s also a bill to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, Salem said. She said anyone interested in getting involved, such as being an advocate, can sign up at